These 10+ best environmental films of all time are not only entertaining, but educational, too
By Jody McCutcheon
We watch movies in part to escape life’s myriad problems. But sometimes, a film can focus on the serious issues we face and help to inspire change.
Today, one of those serious issues is, of course, the environment.
Deforestation, pollution and species extinction are some of the biggest stories of our time, and many of the world’s best storytellers are bringing these issues to life on film, and that’s a great thing: a well-crafted movie can actually bring us closer to nature and inspire us to protect it.
Searching for credible yet compelling content can be overwhelming, but here, we’ve rounded up some of the best environmental films of all time. These movies are real-life thrillers, where humans can be both the heroes and villains. We tried to choose a variety films that deliver different kinds of environmental messages, and that are available to watch in most countries around the world.
Whether your taste leans towards old sci-fi, animation, or documentaries, this list of the 10 best environmental films of all time offers something for everyone. What are your favourites? And what did we miss?
The 10+ Best Environmental Films Of All Time
For me, this is possibly one of THE best environmental films of all time!
It centres around the Na’vi, inhabitants of an Eden-like world called Pandora. They appear to be ‘primitive’ but in fact, they live closely to and harmoniously with nature. Their planet is rich in a mineral resource coveted by humans, but there’s a problem: their pristine environment is actually poisonous to people.
To solve that problem, the US army creates human/Na’vi hybrids, called Avatars, and Jake, a paralyzed former Marine, becomes mobile again through a genetically modified Avatar and is sent to search for falls in love with a Na’vi woman (Zoe Saldana). As his bond with her grows, he is torn between doing battle for the survival of her world, or remaining loyal to his kind.
This film underlines the importance of our connection to nature, as well as to each other, and warns about the consequences of corporate greed on not only the natural world, but indigenous societies
“What’s gonna happen if these forests and all this incredible beauty is lost for all time?” asks Bruce Dern’s protagonist, Freeman Lowell, in Silent Running. Made when the environmental movement was just finding its legs, the story concerns a small colony of ships floating through space, carrying bio-domes filled with the last vestiges of Earth’s natural ecosystem.
The scariest thing about the film isn’t imagining a world without green forests or clean water or healthy ecosystems. No, the scariest thing is the indifference that greets Lowell’s aforementioned question. His colleagues appear totally nonplussed by the ecological apocalypse gripping the Earth.
The plot has good intentions in trying to illustrate what happens when corporate profits take precedence of our wildlife, and the main message here is: the Earth doesn’t need us, we need the Earth!
This Academy-award-winning, Steven Soderbergh-directed docudrama chronicles the true story of one woman’s relentless crusade against corporate pollution. Julia Roberts plays the eponymous paralegal who engages corporate giant Pacific Gas & Electric on behalf of a community poisoned by a chromium 6 leakage.
At the time, PG&E’s $333 million settlement payment was the largest ever paid out in a direct action lawsuit in US history. As a critically favored, box-office success, the film reached a vast audience–meaning scores of people heard the film’s crucial message that, in the eyes of the law, corporate pollution will not be tolerated.
Richard Fleischer’s seamless crossover between science fiction and hardboiled detective thriller sees a murder mystery playing out in a near-future world of mass pollution, global warming, dying oceans, overpopulation and massive wealth divides. People are forced to eat a government produced food called Soylent Green due to food shortages.
One of two Charlton Heston vehicles included here in our list, Soylent Green makes perhaps the most macabre statement of them all. You’ll have to watch to the very end to know what that is, though!
This list wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of a film depicting life under a dome, that old symbol of protection from a poisoned environment. Loosely based on the 1967 novel, the film adaptation of Logan’s Run presents a sterile, technologically dependent society of ethics-free hedonists in the year 2274, whose daily needs and responsibilities–food, reproduction, death–are regulated by computers.
This frees the people up to engage in regular orgies and other pleasurable recreations. In order to balance resources and population, everyone is expected to die on their thirtieth birthday, with a promise of “renewal,” – which of course is hooey. Logan, whose job it is to ensure no one escapes this technocratic ‘paradise’ soon realises there is a better, more natural way to live. But will he be able to choose that?
Boasting a stellar cast, including Farrah Fawcett and Michael York, this is a fun, retro movie that also serves as a warning to us about how a technocratic future dependant on AI could separate us from our true nature.
This Oscar-winning classic is the second Charlton Heston film to grace this list, making the crusty, ex-NRA president the default top lead man of eco-themed films: at least those mentioned here.
In this, the original version of the Planet of the Apes franchise, human cosmonauts crashland on what turns out to be a fortieth-century Earth desertified by nuclear catastrophe and dominated by apes. According to the Ape Scriptures, humans left alone to breed in great numbers will turn fertile lands into deserts. This apparently leads to devaluation of the human species, to the point that they’re just more nasty wildlife in the eyes of apes.
This is one of the first films that made me think about animal cruelty (when I was a kid, I realised what the apes are doing to humans in the film, we essentially do to other intelligent primates). But it’s the reason the apes so loathe the humans – which you find out at the end – that carries the strongest environmental message.
An animated film that’s much more, this instant classic packs a WALL-op. Against a backdrop of catastrophic human mismanagement of the planet, WALL-E is a trash-collecting robot that rummages through a garbage-heaped landscape in the year 2805. Technologically dependent humans live on starliners in a state of relatively inert, morbid obesity, totally disconnected from nature and the environment.
Pretty dark for a Disney production, perhaps, but the film sends a powerful message about our species’ effects on the planet via waste management and environmental neglect. A lack of dialogue eliminates language barriers, giving the film global appeal, and makes it one of the best environmental films of all time for kids of all ages.
When filmmaker Kip Andersen set out to uncover the most destructive industry facing the planet, he stumbled across a topic most of the world’s leading environmental organisations are too afraid to talk about.
Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption and pollution, is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry, and is a primary driver of rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss, topsoil erosion, ocean “dead zones,” and virtually every other environmental ill. Yet it goes on, almost entirely unchallenged.
As Andersen approaches leaders in the environmental movement, he increasingly uncovers what appears to be an intentional refusal to discuss the issue of animal agriculture, while industry whistleblowers and watchdogs warn him of the risks to his freedom and even his life if he dares to persist.
As eye-opening as Blackfish and as inspiring as An Inconvenient Truth, this shocking yet humorous documentary reveals the absolutely devastating environmental impact large-scale factory farming has on our planet, and offers a path to global sustainability for a growing population.
9. Moana (2016)
Here’s a film with a female lead that all kids (and adults!) will absolutely adore!
Moana is an adventurous teenager who sails out on a daring mission to save her people from a famine. During her journey, Moana meets the once-mighty demigod Maui, who guides her in her quest to become a master way-finder. Together they sail across the open ocean on an action-packed voyage, encountering enormous monsters and impossible odds.
Along the way, Moana fulfills the ancient quest of her ancestors and in the end, she discovers just how connected she and her people are to the Earth. Personally, the ending made me cry, but I’m a bit soft like that!
George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy (or Mel Gibson’s, if you’d prefer) isn’t a direct commentary on environmental issues, yet it presents a dystopian world that’s the result of a thermonuclear war. This instalment provides a skeletal history of the mythology’s dystopian backdrop. Surviving humans compete for food and water, which have both become the most precious and coveted things on Earth.
While terrific road chases and shocking violence offer cinematic spectacle for the action-genre crowd, The Road Warrior’s futuristic vision of a junkyard landscape with no hint of green is now the standard-bearer for post-apocalyptic sci-fi (see 9, WALL-E, etc.).
11. The Lorax
Long before environmental concerns were in the mainstream, Dr. Seuss’s much-loved Lorax ‘spoke for the trees’ and warned of the dangers of destroying the environment.
In this beautiful, rhyming tale based on the classic Dr Seuss book, we meet the Once-ler, who came across a valley of Truffula Trees and Brown Bar-ba-loots, and how his harvesting of the tufted trees is changing the landscape forever, despite the Lorax’s protests.
The classic tale of the Lorax has educated generations of young readers not only about the importance of seeing the beauty in the world around us, but also about our responsibility to protect it.
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